Christian Robles-Baez | Summer 2022 Research Trip to Brazil

Thanks to the Wirth Grant, I was able to complete a research trip to Brazil at the end of my 3rd year in the Ph.D. program. From late July 2022 to late September 2022, when I traveled to Brazil, I made a significant progress with my dissertation project, tentatively titled Setting up the Coffee Empire: The United States and Brazil in the Early 19th Century. During this trip, I started my archival research and visited some of the places that I am studying in my dissertation. I have already discussed some of these preliminary findings with my advisor, Professor Zephyr Frank. In this report, I present the main fruits of this trip, divided in three parts. First, I describe some of the documents that I found. Second, I discuss some of the places that I visited; and third, I explain how the findings and learnings can be used in the next stages of my doctoral dissertation.

For two months, I regularly visited the National Archive located in downtown Rio de Janeiro. The archive is a beautiful mid-19th century building that was used for coining. At the entrance, the stairs separate the sculptures of two alluring lions playing with balls. Although this part of the city looks abandoned and sketchy, the building is well-kept. During my first visits, I discussed my dissertation’s broader framework with the archivists who were very kind and helpful. Brazilian archivist Mariana Lambert was particularly generous and willing to explain to me with a lot of patience the system of the archive and the ways in which I could use my time in the archive as efficiently as possible. I navigated through official decrees (especially those of the Ministry of Finance), newspapers, and other documents such as lawsuits. Lawsuits were a type of source that I had not had in mind previously and that ended up being surprisingly useful. I read two judicial processes entirely, which allowed me to see very closely critical aspects of the functioning of the coffee economy during the early nineteenth century in Brazil.


The first one was a lawsuit that Anna Inocencia Telles de Menesez filed in 1834 against João Francisco da Silva in which the former accused the latter of invading a piece of land that she claimed hers to grow coffee. The woman did not only request the expulsion of da Silva from her property but also the confiscation of the crops that da Silva and his wife were growing. De Menesez said that her deceased father, Francisco Telles Barreto de Menesez, had been granted the land from the Portuguese Crown through a system called sesmaria. De Mensez was probably a wealthy woman because the sesmarias were almost exclusively granted to quite influential families—usually the royalty. She was also in a position to hire attorneys and to write with her own hand some of her statements. Certainly, being a literate woman at that time in Brazil was quite exceptional. Much closer to the average Brazilian citizen was João Francisco da Silva, who was illiterate and was described in some parts of the files as a “rustic man”. When da Silva had the chance to defend himself from the accusations, the case took an unexpected turn.

Da Silva presented himself in court with a skilled attorney, who explained that the land in dispute did not belong to de Menesez but to the São Bento Monastery. He explained that, as many other laborers, da Silva was working in tenanted terrains that belonged to the Monastery. According to the attorney (hired directly by the Monastery), de Menesez intention was to steal the land from the Monastery through calculated legal strategies, and that it had not been her first attempt. This time, Menesez was not only trying to steal the Monastery’s land but also da Silva’s crops. Thus, she went from accusing to be accused. After three years of hearings and legal proceedings, the judge validated da Silva’s attorney evidence and stated that Menesez had “sinister purposes”. The Judge also asked de Menesez to spare herself the ostentation of her power against the poor.  

This case allowed me to see that coffee was not produced exclusively in large plantations by slaves. When da Silva’s attorney explained that there were many other tenants working in rented land, I found that that there was another group of producers—free laborers—that could have played an important role in the production of coffee during the early 19th century in Rio de Janeiro’s region. I shall still explore more in depth this hypothesis to assess the weight of this free-laborers production. In addition, this case allowed me to see that landless peasants sometimes found their way to take advantage of the coffee boom that Brazil was experiencing during these years and were even able to defend themselves from much more powerful actors through the judicial system. A careful examination of this case gave me a detailed notion of the legal institutions of early 19th century Brazil, a critical part for my project.

The second lawsuit that I studied in detail was a case in which Antonio Francisco Oliveira sued Francisco Pinto Ribeiro for an unpaid debt related to coffee. According to the accusation, Oliveira gave 34 arrobas and 16 pounds of coffee to Ribeiro, for which Ribeiro should have paid him 176$640 reis in the future. Oliveira presented a piece of paper signed by the two of them confirming the terms of the transaction, although the date of payment was not established. The paper, called “clareza”, should have been destroyed once the debt was paid. Therefore, the existence of the clareza was presented as proof of the debt. In addition, Ribeiro failed to show a receipt confirming the payment to Oliveira, as was usual in these transactions. Ribeiro argued that he had lost it along with other papers during a heavy storm in the city, that inundated a shack that he used as his office in Dom Manoel beach, in the downtown of the city. Ribeiro claimed that during many years they both had a good commercial relationship, and although they signed papers, the relationship was based on “good faith” (boa fe). Thus, Ribeiro said that when Oliveira visited him to square accounts, every 4 or 6 months, he sometimes forgot to bring the clarezas but it was never an impediment to cancel debts and maintain their business going. Ribeiro just trusted that Oliveira would destroy them later.  In addition, Ribeiro said that he used to lend money to Oliveira. Therefore, had the debt existed, Oliveira could have used the money lent to clear the debt. Ribeiro brought seven witnesses to court to confirm his thesis and requested an examination of the clareza presented by Oliveira in order to assess its authenticity.  Despite the solid argumentation of Ribeiro and the several resources that he presented in court, the judge considered that his statements could not be proven, that his witnesses contradicted each other, and that he deliberately had requested the examination of the clareza because he himself had tried to alter it when it was in his power. He was sentenced to pay twice the amount of the original debt because the judge considered he had intentionally attempted to commit fraud.

This case in particular helped me understand some of the mechanisms of credit of the coffee economy in Rio de Janeiro during the first half of the 19th century. It is interesting to see how in the absence of banks, people used informal though useful ways to get credit. Despite its weaknesses and flaws, these informal ways of credit seem to have been critical for the growth of the coffee economy during its formative years. By analyzing other similar cases like this, I expect to have a good idea of the financial networks of coffee and the ways in which planters and businessmen dealt with the inherent risks that this enterprise entailed.

During my trip to Brazil, I stayed mostly in Rio de Janeiro. The places that I mostly visited were the National Archive and the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. However, I visited other historical landmarks such as the Cais do Valongo, a 19th century slave wharf that was unburied in 2011; the Pedra do Sal, a traditional meeting point of enslaved people; and the Cemiterio dos Pretos Novos, a cemetery for the enslaved Africans that died soon after their arrival in Rio de Janeiro. According to recent works, around 60 thousand African bodies were deposited in this cemetery. These landmarks were very illustrative for me because in the early nineteenth century slavery was tightly related to the coffee economy.

In addition to Rio de Janeiro city, I was able to visit the hinterland of São Paulo—a traditional coffee region—for one week. I visited the old coffee towns of Avai, Bauru, Lençóis Paulista, Piratininga, and Jaú. During this short trip, I had the guidance of Professor Fábio Pallotta, professor of the Univsersidade do Sagrado Coração in Bauru. He invited me to see the archive of his university and introduced me to some of his colleagues.  Professor Pallota took me to the coffee museum in Piratininga, located in an old coffee plantation.  In this place, I could notice how the expansion of the coffee economy and the building of railways in this region during the second half of the nineteenth century came hand in hand with the expropriation of land from indigenous populations, and with the massive destruction of the Atlantic Forest. Very close to the coffee museum in Piratininga there are still indigenous communities such as the Terena, the Tupi, and the Kaingang. These indigenous communities have survived five centuries of colonization, but still suffer its consequences. A few indigenous people work in the museum as staff.  Some of them explained to me some of the geographical aspects of the region and even taught me some words in their native languages.

This research trip was highly rewarding in both academic and personal aspects. I was able to meet incredibly generous people, to examine unique documents kept in the National Archive, and to see with my own eyes the territories and historical places that I have been studying in the books for the last three years. To have a first-hand experience of the environment, the climate, the geography, and the land that I had imagined through the books was quite illustrative to better understand the historical processes that I am addressing in my doctoral dissertation. Contact with the land is quite important because at the end, coffee does not grow in paper but in land.

In the next months I plan to continue my archival research in Brazil. This summer trip was a significant first step to assess the usefulness of the primary sources and to have a better idea of the available resources. I plan to continue my research at the National Archive and to visit at least two more archives: the Archive of the State of Rio de Janeiro and the Archive of the City of Rio de Janeiro. I also plan to meet with professors and graduate students of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, (UFRJ),  the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF), and the Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC), who can greatly advise me in this stage of my research.

The findings and learnings of this research trip that I was able to do thanks to the Wirth Grant were extremely useful in my research and would make much efficient my future work in Brazil. In personal terms, the trip was also a fulfilling experience. I am so thankful for this opportunity.